'A daughter fair," enthused Milton, "so buxom, blithe and debonair." Little did he think that the adjective "buxom" would become a condescending term of abuse: an insult so demeaning that the use of it required an immediate and humiliating retraction from a grovelling Mark Fielding of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (Isme) last Wednesday.
So, what did the man say? Well, initially, to the Irish Times, on the subject of the proposed extension of maternity leave being voted on by the European Parliament, he said: "If there are candidates [for a job] and one is a buxom young woman of child-rearing years and the other is a fellow, who is an employer going to hire when he or she knows that they will have to pay 20 weeks' maternity leave?"
I looked up the definition of 'buxom'. Not having heard the word used in polite society for some time (like, forever), I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what Fielding had in mind with his talk of buxom child-rearing maidens.
So then, 'buxom' = healthy, plump, lively, full of figure, bosomy, big-hipped and an awful lot of other adjectives and adverbs in the same vein. While all of these attributes are certainly desirable, the effect of placing the word 'buxom' in front of 'young woman' -- a potential employee at that -- is denigrating. It implies that her worth is purely physical and her role is solely that of reproduction: for 'buxom', think 'bovine'.
Poor Mark, of course, certainly didn't mean that when he made his comments last week. He later apologised for his remarks, saying they were stupid. He also said that his comments were a serious mistake and that neither himself nor Isme would condone discrimination on the basis of gender by employers, which is illegal.
But though he was forced to apologise for the "buxom" comment, Fielding stood firm on his belief that women would be discriminated against because of the proposed increases in maternity benefit.
It was Alan Sugar who once said that equality legislation, if taken too far, can actually reduce the chances of women gaining employment. Businesses aren't allowed to ask women if they intend to have a baby, "so it's easy -- just don't employ them" was his harsh retort.
And Fielding was echoing this attitude when he said: "While it will never be documented, the danger is that discrimination will take place. If someone is interviewing people for a job ... the gentleman is not likely to be going on 20-week maternity leave."
And here he's hit the nail on the head, because the problem -- apart from the obvious one of small businesses struggling to survive, which I will come back to -- is not that equality legislation has been taken too far, but that it has not been taken far enough. Because what could possibly be 'equal' about introducing legislation which gives women 20 weeks of paid maternity leave and men only two?
Granted, the new legislation proposing two weeks of paid paternity leave is a big improvement on none, but shouldn't parents have equal responsibility for their children? Physical and post-partum issues aside, the father of a child has both a right and a duty to demand equal time with a new baby. It's called being a family -- something that, despite all our adulation of the Irish Mammy, we only pay lip-service to in Ireland.
Recently nearly two-thirds of Irish women polled said that they would be happy to share their maternity leave with their partner if the option was available. Presumably -- even though their opinions weren't sought -- the men were also amenable to this idea. So why isn't this reflected in officialdom?
Practically every new father complains that he would love more time to stay home with a new baby, to bond with them and to feel a part of the new family that they have helped to create. But unless the new dads can take holiday time, they are booted back out the door and told that their job is to provide for Mum and Baby, further copperfastening ideals of ancient roles that really aren't relevant anymore.
If we are to create a sustainable economy with a healthy work/life balance, we have to sensibly combine fair periods of both maternity and paternity leave with far more family- friendly policies in the workplace. We need to challenge the assumption that women are the sole child-carers and men are the primary breadwinners.
Europe, with its aging population, needs to entice more women into the workplace -- and keep them there. Studies show that the more generous maternity leave schemes for women are, the less they feel their work life is incompatible with having children. (Ditto for men.) So economically, even disregarding the immense social benefits, it makes sense.
Also, recent research has shown that paternity leave leads to fathers taking on more caring duties during their children's childhood, giving the woman of the family more time to work. Equal parental leave would seem to be a win-win situation.
But of course, there are many small businesses that just couldn't cope with the proposed changes in maternity leave, let alone an increase in paternity leave. These are the SMEs that are stretched to breaking point and desperately need Government help if they -- and their employees -- are to stay in business.
What we need is a national policy toward parental leave that is solely provided by the Government and is not dependent on the munificence (or lack thereof) of an employer. We also need Government support of child-friendly work-places and attitudes. As it is, our Government doesn't seem to have realised that the majority of workers in this country are parents, with families to care for.
And, yes, in this climate there's hardly likely to be spare public cash flying around to pay for parents to stay at home with their children, or for publicly funded creches. But that doesn't mean we can't aspire to holistic, family-friendly policies -- inside and outside the workplace -- that will ultimately prove beneficial to all.
If there's one thing the current situation has made us do, it is sit up and ask ourselves: what sort of society do we want, and, more importantly, what can we do to achieve it?
Look at France. Though we may be appalled at the penchant to drop tools whenever their Gallic sensitivities are offended, we can't argue with the fact that France, once again, has been ranked "the best place to live in the world" (International Living Magazine) for quality of life. This is what the French get out on to the streets to protect. Many of the current protesters have admitted that their anger is not so much against the proposed increase in retirement age, but at the general anti-family policies they perceive Sarkozy to be pursuing.
As French author Mireille Guillano (Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire) said: "Quality of life remains essential to the French and they are unified on what this means. If you have a happy relationship with your work, you are in a better headspace to enjoy your family and the rituals and traditions that anchor French life. Being at home in time to prepare and eat dinner together, for example, is something lots of families of all social economic strata still do. It makes for a more organised, sensible approach to work: less about sacrifice, making money, running after promotions and more about knowing what matters at a given time."
Brigitte Triems, President of the European Women's Lobby, said last Wednesday that the passing of the new parental leave bill was "an incredibly important victory for parents, both mothers and fathers, as it will for the first time shift the costs of maternity from individual women to society as a whole".
However, the bias in favour of women will mean that some employers will inevitably shy away from hiring them (buxom or not) in favour of fathers who will be entitled to only two weeks' paid leave. It may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory.